To embark, as I have just done, on the writing of a volume on the sociology of 20th-century England is to be struck at once by the contrast between studying events and people in the immediate past and events and people which, for anyone of my age or less, are as remote as the First Reform Bill or the Charge of the Light Brigade. I have started by reading in parallel Peter Jenkins’s Mrs Thatcher’s Revolution and the two concluding volumes of Halévy’s magisterial History of the English People in the 19th Century, which between them take the story from 1895 to 1914. The contrast is not so much between an era of greatness and an era of decline as between – or so it seems at first sight – issues and characters larger and smaller than life. Is it just that distance lends glamour? Or is it fair to say that Parliament in the 1980s is distinguished only by its mediocrity when contrasted with the days when Asquith was at No 10, Lloyd George at the Exchequer, and Winston Churchill at the Board of Trade – and, down on the Bristol waterfront, a young carter called Ernest Bevin was getting himself elected chairman of a newly established carmen’s branch of the Dockers’ Union?

The question gains added point when joined to the now fashionable question whether the current political dominance of Margaret Thatcher is not simply a function of an opposition which is not only disastrously divided but exceptionally feeble. One needn’t be quite as scathing about Neil Kinnock as R.W. Johnson has recently been in these columns in order to agree with him that the idea of Kinnock at No 10 is disturbingly like the idea of Jesse Jackson in the White House. And one needn’t put too much weight on Peter Jenkins’s account of Mrs Thatcher in tears before the Westland debate (‘I may not be Prime Minister by six o’clock tonight’) in order to agree with him that the whole affair made her look weak and her government out of control. No doubt luck was just as important in the politics of the 1900s as of the 1980s. But what prime minister in our history can have enjoyed the astonishing good fortune not merely of an opposition party which chose first Foot and then Kinnock to do battle against her, but of the services of such invaluable allies as General Galtieri, Anthony Wedgwood Benn and ‘King Arthur’ Scargill? And was there anyone at Tory Central Office so absurdly optimistic as to foresee the hilarious shambles which would be made of itself by the so-called ‘Alliance’?

Yet I wonder. Asquith’s long tenure as prime minister also owed much to luck, and he too had his moments of weakness. Churchill, as has often been remarked, would be remembered only as a failure if he had died at the same age as Hugh Gaitskell. Lloyd George, for all his political skills, destroyed his own career and his party with it. And would anyone, during the constitutional clashes of 1910, have dreamed that the first Labour government with an overall majority in the House of Commons, whose legislative programme would rank it with Asquith’s as one of the two great reforming administrations of the century, would be led by an exceptionally unprepossessing Old Haileyburian who, at the end of that year, was made redundant by Toynbee Hall? The career of Clement Attlee – to Beatrice Webb ‘a meaningless figure’, to Chips Channon a ‘bee without a sting’, and to the Conservative backbenchers a ‘sheep in sheep’s clothing’ – illustrates not only the importance of luck but also the danger of confusing personal style with political effectiveness. The clumsiest-looking contestant can sometimes climb to the top of the greasy pole, just as the most acrobatic can sometimes fall off it. Why suppose that the players of the party-political game were a different sort of person in the high noon of imperial splendour than in the post-imperial twilight when a Conservative government was cutting the Navy Estimates so far back that the Falklands War was very nearly lost before it had begun?

The truth is, I suspect, that party politics has always been a contest in which own goals count for more than well-directed strikes from the opposing side. Asquith may, in his prime, have been ‘the greatest Parliamentarian’, but his decision to let Labour form a minority government was fatal to the chances of there ever being a Liberal administration again. Baldwin may, as several historians seem ready to accept, have been an exceptionally skilful party manager with a sensitivity to public opinion bordering on genius, but he lost the Election of 1923 entirely through his personal decision to go to the country on the issue of protection, and was hardly less surprised when he lost the Election of 1929. Churchill’s return to power in 1951 may have seemed an overdue personal triumph over the ‘sheep in sheep’s clothing’: but he owed it to the depletion of the Labour front benches through resignation, illness and death. And the Third Force? Well – the shambles is hardly a novelty. The Liberals have consistently displayed a capacity for division of counsel and confusion of purpose in which David Steel would have felt thoroughly at home at any time. ‘An ill-organised miscellany of view-points’ is how Paul Addison, in The Road to 1945, describes it from 1916 on. Or as Neville Chamberlain wrote in his diary for 19 October 1935, ‘our party is united, Labour is torn with dissensions, Liberals have no distinctive policy.’ Does nothing change, then?

No doubt the issues change – or some do. But which? Not unemployment. Not defence. Not the need to control inflation. Not the uncompetitiveness of British manufactures. Not the problem of welfare scroungers combined with the problem of inadequate take-up of entitlement to benefits. Not the abuse of trade-union power. Not the failure of our educational system to turn out properly-qualified recruits for employment in industry. And not even protection – or, as it was apt to be called in those days, tariff reform. What, I wonder, would Joseph Chamberlain have said if he could have foreseen that his conviction that Free Trade was as good for the foreign manufacturer as it was bad for the English workman would become the creed of Labour politicians of the 1980s bemoaning a Conservative government’s dismantling of exchange controls? Admittedly, Chamberlain’s vision of a nation of sturdy yeomen and patriotic labourers sustained by the fruits of empire can hardly be reconciled with the vision of a neutralist Britain dominated by trade-union leaders and sheltering its domestic producers behind a combination of currency depreciation and import controls. But protection versus free trade is the issue, all the same.

The fact that in Joe Chamberlain’s day there still was an empire to be the subject of party-political controversy does, perhaps, bring us back to the contrast between an era of greatness and an era of decline. How can Mrs Thatcher’s squabbles in Cabinet over an ailing helicopter company, lectures to the French over agricultural surpluses, and reluctant concessions to the Chinese over the sovereignty of Hong Kong, be put on a par with the dramas of the Dreadnought-building race, the secret negotiations over spheres of influence in Africa and the Near East, and the impassioned debates over the military preparedness necessary to preserve world peace by demonstrating the willingness to wage a European war? But again, I wonder. The Trident missiles are our Dreadnoughts, and, as Peter Jenkins well describes, Mrs Thatcher has managed to get herself treated by the super-powers as a serious, as well as an eager participant in the nuclear diplomacy of today. What is more, Halévy’s account of the muddles and recriminations which, in the 1910s as in the 1980s, characterised the fire-eating militarists and moralising disarmers alike leaves one more convinced than ever that policy-makers and opinion-formers could trip just as embarrassingly over the banana-skins when the country was a first-class power as after it had been relegated to the minor league.

The game of plus ça change can, of course, be played with the help of selective quotation and anecdote to point almost any moral you choose. But there is, all the same, something a little uncanny about the resemblances between the policies of the government of 1988 and those of the government of precisely two generations ago. In 1922, we likewise had a prime minister with a formidable international reputation, an unassailable Conservative majority, and an opposition in apparent disarray. The pound had just risen so far against the dollar that bank rate was reluctantly lowered. Something of a U-turn was having to be done over the attempt to cut back public expenditure because of cross-party opposition in sensitive constituencies (the only difference being that education, not health, was the issue). But real wages were rising, and the Stock Market holding up well. Unemployment was disappointingly high, but nobody had any credible solution to it; and the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s first priority was to cut the standard rate of income tax to 25p (or 5s, as it then was) in the pound.

You may say that I have chosen this last particular parallel for rhetorical effect, and so I have. But there are, as I am finding, a remarkable number of others from 1922 on, and I hope, in subsequent issues, to draw some of the more striking of them to your attention.

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